Switching to a Woodworking Career

A professional pilot who loves woodworking is considering a career change. His story sets off a spirited discussion on the ups and downs of the self-employed craftsman's life. November 10, 2005

I'm an airline pilot with arguably too much time off. I have done a lot of kitchens for people in my spare time, but I feel like I'm at a crossroads in my life. I love woodworking but it seems to be taking over my life.

Do I give up flying and really pursue my passion of woodworking (which lets face it can be really stressful) or forget and continue flying which pays well and involves pretty much no stress or thought. My wife says "Why make life hard? Stick to the flying - itís easy most of the time and pays well." I guess I like the feeling of being my own boss, doing what I want when I want.
Has anybody out there been in this situation with any advice to add?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor L:
Flying with no stress or thought? I have piloted and I have never been busier in my life. Just as you have become familiar with all the systems and responses with flying, so it is with cabinetmaking. It has its systems and rules and predictable outcomes. Or, it should have, if you're doing it right. The fun of this business is, among other things is the precision of what youíre making. Others are selling, knowing your products, refining something new. Itís something really cool developing a new career. You can always go back to flying.

From contributor W:
I got out of the Marines in 1991 and went to work for a major airline. I stayed there until 1995. I had a job where I sat at a cubicle and processed claims. It was very easy work and a steady check with superb benefits including 401K matching up to 6% and profit sharing not to mention full medical and dental for $10 a paycheck. It was air conditioned and I worked with a great set of folks. A friend of my wife had asked me to make a table and after that, I was hooked.

Woodworking was in my blood. It consumed all my free time mentally and physically. I found myself looking at pieces of furniture and cabinetry and wondering and figuring out how it was made. It became an obsession and I found myself making pieces for friends and family for "at cost" and my family life started to suffer. One day, my wife gave it to me straight - either get a job in a cabinet shop and make time for the family, or else. I took her strong advice and found a shop that needed help.

I gave up the great job, the benefits, the 401K, medical and dental all to work for a decrease in pay, no medical, no dental, no 401K and to work as a "rookie" doing all the sanding and "gofer" stuff. Working at a cabinet shop did indeed make time for my family and I have learned some great skills.

Letís analyze this:
PROS: You will learn new skills and will get great satisfaction from your work until it gets old and repetitive. You will be able to make anything after a period of time and you might make friends with like minded individuals. You will get your fill of woodworking in no time.

CONS: There is a high probability that you will work with people half your age that have "questionable" backgrounds or donít speak English as a first language and no cultural similarities. You will definitely take a pay cut and more than likely a benefit and every other cut. You will get tired of making the same thing everyday and there isnít much time for socializing while you work. You will do manual labor lifting 4 by 8 sheets of MDF (heavy and cumbersome) to the saw, installing drawer guides which will require a lot of bending and stooping. You will be dog tired at the end of every day. The owners have a schedule to keep and itís up to you to make it happen.

I love what I do now and I am experienced and I can work in any shop in the country doing whatever needs to be done, but if I had it all to do over, I would. Why, my family comes first and I got to spend quality time with my children while they were young rather than being in the garage all the time. Sure it was financial pay cut, but the rewards I have with my family are priceless. On a professional level, it gives me great pride to know that the owner of my shop can come to me and ask me to do something complicated and I can do it exactly the way itís supposed to be done and in a timely manner. Find what makes you happy and do it.

I would suggest trying this. Find a shop in your area and ask them if you can work a couple days out of the week on your free time at their shop. Ask them if you can "shadow" one of their best employees and you will see what all is involved in "woodworking" as a profession. If you like it then go for it.

From contributor R:
I have a similar story. After 24 years I was stuck in a job I learned to hate. I had been doing a lot of side work in woodworking. I had a little internet business going and had done several kitchens, built-ins, etc.

One day the company got bought out for its assets and I found myself unemployed. So I jumped in with both feet and started full time. That was 3 years ago. I now have 2 employees and should do about $400K in business this year. I am looking to double my shop size this year to 5200 square feet and hopefully double my sales next year.

Working for myself has been very rewarding. You need to be self employed to know what that means. My future is controlled by me and only limited by my ability and ambition. But I hire more ability if needed. I have found that at this stage more of my work is business related and less woodworking, but I still love it. Business - estimating, selling, budgeting, managing, selling, accounting, advertising, selling. It does not stop and you need to be ready for it. I highly recommend making the change to a second career.

From the original questioner:
Well done to those of you who were brave enough to make that big leap - I'm still in limbo. I'm going to go flying part time and see what effect that has. The point is though, I see more of my family working as a pilot (short haul) than I do making and installing kitchens. As William said, itís 8 o'clock on a Saturday night and you're on your aching knees trying to fit some drawer runners into a tight space and I ask myself what I'm doing?

From contributor G:
Owning a woodworking business has its good and bad points just like any other business. It is not a bad feeling of being one's own boss. Being able to do what you want when you want - that is a fairy tale. You will have deadlines on every project. You will be late on deadlines until you learn every aspect of the business. You will be robbed of your time by the nagging little details that have to be done by every legitimate business - sales, advertising, design, taxes, employee problems, health care, environmental regulation, OSHA compliance, etc.

If you truly love doing woodworking for the love of it then do it part time. It is wonderful to have the time to devote to a small project without having to worry if you are making money on it. Build things for the love of it. You have been given the gift of being a talented pilot and having financial security. If you have a love and obsession with woodworking then rent a small space and fill it full of tools. You don't have to quit your job to do that. Be realistic about your goals.

Jumping into a business with no prior experience is a recipe for disaster. Being able to build things is great. Being able to make a living off of the things that you build is another thing altogether. Most small business owners work 80 hours a week for the first 5 years that the business is open. 80% of small business ventures fail in the first 5 years. I am not trying to throw cold water on your idea. I just want you to go in with eyes wide open.

If you do decide to damn the torpedoes and go ahead; then get your space and tools and 2 years worth of living expenses and overhead in the bank before you quit being a pilot. Understand that you will be taking a pay cut. You will have extra expenses like health insurance, self employment taxes, and retirement. If you go in fully prepared then you will be that much more likely to make it.

From contributor F:
I would suggest being careful about making your hobby your business. Because that is just what it becomes - a business. And the loss of income is not a small issue. Worrying about money can seriously degrade your quality of life.

I have been on the flip side - my woodworking business now brings the paycheck home, but my passion is music. But playing 2 or 3 nights a week can make my hobby a break-even proposition, just like garage based wood-working.

I think you are wise to reduce the hours you fly, i.e. free up enough time to do more of your hobby, and keep it a hobby, until the money issue doesn't matter (early retirement), or until you have the skills and business plan that will pull it all together.

No one can legally hire you for free. A couple of days at a shop here and there will teach you a tremendous amount. You are bright enough that you don't need to do the same thing for 3 months - basically you want the opportunity to see how experienced trades people do something, and then move on to a different shop if the owners don't mentor you aggressively.

From contributor M:
I left a well paying job about 6 years ago to pursue something I loved to do. For me though, I just couldn't stand my day job and it was negatively affecting my quality of life. It doesn't sound like you're in the same boat. I also had prior experience running a business which has helped - though I'm just starting to make money in my own business.

I worked for others for 4 years, then started on my own. My first year, I posted a $16,000 loss. I'm in a good niche (we specialize in restoring heritage buildings). Still though, I can see it might not be long (2-3 years) before I buy a CNC to produce many of the fun and challenging projects we work by hand currently. There's a lot of competition even in the niche markets. You have to be very good on the business end. Not that I'm going back. I love what I do and find new challenges every day. But if you like your current job, with its security and time off, I'd be doing a whole lot of research before making a jump.

From contributor M:
I came out of the High Tech industry after 25 years and became a full time woodworker in 2002, crafting custom furniture and cabinetry. If you're serious about turning your hobby into a business then make it a point to do it right and leave little, or better yet, nothing to chance.
The secret to starting a small business that is not only successful, but profitable, is to spend as much time planning how you will start, run and operate your business "long before" you actually "take off" and jump into it full time. Very similar to filing a flight plan before you get behind the controls in the cockpit.

Luck has nothing to do with having a woodworking business you can rely on to bring you a full time income, pay for all its operating expenses, provide you with the security you and your family want, and make a profit on top of that. Planning has everything to do with it.

You can easily become prey to the small business syndrome of being a slave to your business, letting it run your life, and settling for low margin jobs and a mediocre income. However with the proper "flight plan" you can easily structure your business to "work for you" and bring it revenue and income you want.

Being your own boss in your own business is a tremendous feeling, especially when your business is consistently profitable. You not only get to call all the shots and work your own hours, you also get tremendous satisfaction in producing tangible products that people love and become a respected community leader.

Take the time to develop a plan for success ahead of time and your business will be a success. Make sure to plan in advance how your business will operate, what your business goals are, how your business will be structured, how you'll craft your products, what you'll sell, who you'll sell it to, how you'll promote your business, how you'll price your products, what your income will be, what your target profit margin will be, etc. If you take the time to do this up front, you'll quickly learn if becoming a full time woodworker is feasible for you, and if it is, how you'll get it done.

From contributor E:
Listen to your wife. Too many times I have seen people who love to work with wood try to make it in this business only to come to the realization that it is truly a business. The thing that you like best (working with wood) will have to take a back seat. You will have to become a businessman leaving the part that lured you in to someone else. My advice is stick with what you know unless you truly hate it and keep the woodworking fun and enjoyable.

From the original questioner:
Interestingly I recently spent a day with a "full time professional" with a small workshop who was helping me with a problem I had and it really opened my eyes. The speed, efficiency and accuracy with which he worked made me realize that I have a long way to go and an awful lot to learn. Simple things like the layout of his workshop was all geared to make life easy, the amount of machinery he had put me to shame. I guess flying will have to take priority for now - certainly until I become more proficient in the workshop.